Conversion through Beauty

Elizabeth Lev is an art historian in Rome and a highly sought-after tour guide to the Eternal City.  In her book How Catholic Art Saved the Faith, she writes about the tumultuous period the 16th century.  The Protestant Reformation was in full swing and Gutenberg’s printing press made it possible to disseminate information on a scale previously unimaginable.  An overwhelming amount of polemical literature appeared, usually containing new and unfamiliar theology as well as condemnations of the Church.  A poorly catechized population, led by poorly-educated clergy, were put in the novel position of having to choose who to believe, and whether to join new rival Christian factions led by different figures such as Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin, or remain under the care of the Catholic magisterium, which was mired in every kind of scandal imaginable.  Significantly, while the Protestant leaders were often hostile to sacred art and relied most heavily on the power of the printing press, the Catholic Church at the Council of Trent (1545-1563) embraced sacred art as an essential way of teaching the Faith. Sacred art, Lev argues, was uniquely able to cut through the din of argument and the shame of scandal and present the perennial truths of the Faith in a way that was accessible and resonated with people.  It didn’t hurt that in this period the Church could showcase such talent as Caravaggio. 

Among Caravaggio’s many masterpieces is the 1601 painting Conversion on the Way to Damascus.  It depicts the event of St. Paul’s conversion, the feast we celebrate this Monday (1/25).  This event is chronicled in the Acts of the Apostles (chap 9), when the fierce Pharisee, Saul, “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord,” encounters the risen Christ while travelling to Damascus to arrest the members of the Church who lived there.  The scriptures tell us that a light from heaven flashed about him and he fell to the ground and heard the voice of Jesus that said, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”  Saul is blinded by the experience, but his sight is restored three days later by a nervous Christian named Ananias. Saul the Pharisee goes on to become Paul the Apostle, the greatest Christian missionary who ever lived. 

In the painting, Caravaggio depicts Saul as having been knocked off his horse, and is now lying on his back at the bottom of the scene, almost falling out of the painting into the world of the viewer.  He is bathed in light, facing upwards, and reaching up with his hands.  His posture is that of a corpse, but also that of an infant; one who has died but also a newborn.  Saul, who had been savage in his persecution of the Church, who had ridden so high on the horse that dominates the scene, is now rendered low and completely helpless and vulnerable.  At the same time, the light from above seems to invite the man who has fallen so low to be raised up to heights infinitely higher than he ever could have achieved before. It is the death of Saul and his resurrection as Paul. 

In our age, saturated with information and bereft of reliable authority, it is difficult to know where to turn to find truth and wisdom.  Many people, such as Elizabeth Lev, credit Catholicism’s beauty – with its chant, its liturgy, its art and architecture, its saints – with their conversion/reversion to the Catholic faith.  The beauty of all these things reflects the perfect Source of all beauty, the One who knocked St. Paul off his horse on the way to Damascus and sent him to share the beauty of the Catholic Faith with the nations. 

Conversion on the Road to Damascus [detail], Caravaggio (1601)

posted 1/23/24

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